Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
The first thought was that, if this is indeed the age of idiocracy, then as a would-be intellectual I have nothing more fitting to do than to continue to celebrate erudition. And if this is the age of tribalist barbarism, then as a cosmopolitan there’s nothing more appropriate for me to keep highlighting than cultural exchanges through the ages.
The second thought was that, if there’s one reason to learn about the ancients, then it is surely for these occasions that try our souls, when their examples might guide us. And the first ancient that came to mind was Boethius.
The example won’t encourage anyone who knows late Roman/early Medieval European history. Boethius died in prison, executed by order of Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king he served. But that gets to my point. Perhaps it is because I’m not religious; I do not believe in the fairy tale that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. As much as I respect President Obama, I do not believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. It bends toward where we bend it toward.
When Mark Antony’s men came to kill Cicero, did he protest that the arc of the moral universe was meant to lead toward democracy? When Emperor Honorius saw the Visigoths enter the gates of Rome, did he argue that history was supposed to tend toward civilization?
Because the truth of history is that some of us get to live in golden ages, and others have to live in ages of decline and of disaster. It would appear that you and I belong in the latter—having watched 2016 unfold I find it hard not to conclude that we’re witnessing the decline of liberal Western democracies. The question then becomes how ought you, a decent person, to live now that you recognize the age in which you live.
Which is what makes Boethius an interesting figure to learn from. Edward Gibbon described him as “the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman.” In an age when classical learning was no longer valued, “Boethius is said to have employed eighteen laborious years in the schools of Athens,” where he learned fluent Greek as well as philosophy. When his illiterate king turned against him, the scholarship of a philosopher “was stigmatized with the names of sacrilege and magic.”
So of course in prison Boethius wrote his best work, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” a dialogue in which Philosophy personified appears in his prison cell to console him through discourse. Writing the book didn’t change the outcome of history. Theodoric still killed him. Europe still plunged into the Dark Ages. But Boethius was true to himself. To the end he was an unapologetic expression of who he was.
I’m also reminded of my Chinese grandfather. When he was 19, news came that Japan had invaded China. He walked out of his village and enlisted in the army. He spent the next eight years fighting World War II, which his country won. Then he spent four more years fighting a civil war against Communism, which his side lost. When he washed up in Taiwan in his early 30s, he had lost just about everything he had except his wife and son.
If he were still with us today, I’d want to ask him how he, as one individual caught up in the gales of history, dealt with the cataclysms of his time. But I already know what he’d say (after pointing out that, compared to what he lived through, I ain’t seen nothin’ yet). As a junior infantry officer, he led charges against the enemy, and bullets would whizz by his arteries. But when we asked him about it, he always said that it was simply what you did as a soldier, to keep moving. He wasn’t saying that he was brave or that he knew he’d be all right. He didn’t. He was only saying that he was a solider, so he acted like one.
And that, in the end, is all there is to it. How does a scholar live in an age of ignorance? By writing. Where does a soldier go when bullets are raining down all around him? Only forward. What does a patriot do when her country is under attack? She fights. Not because knowledge will overcome ignorance, not because the bullets will never land, and not because the patriotic cause will triumph. The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice. The scholar, or the soldier, or the patriot does what she does not because she expects vindication in the long run but simply because it is who she is.
So how does a decent person live in an age of ugliness, of decline, of indecency? By being decent. Not because of faith that decency will prevail, but because that is what a decent person does.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."